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City rights in the Low Countries: Map

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City rights are a medieval phenomenon in the history of the Low Countries. A liegelord, usually a count, duke or similar member of high nobility, granted a settlement he owned certain town privileges that settlements without city rights did not have.

In Belgiummarker, Luxembourgmarker, and the Netherlandsmarker, a settlement is, often proudly, called a city when it was granted city rights at one time of its history. As the current number of inhabitants has no relevance on this, there are very small cities. The smallest one is Staverdenmarker in the Netherlands, with 40 inhabitants. In Belgium, Durbuymarker is the smallest city, whilst the smallest in Luxembourg is Viandenmarker.

Overview

To stimulate the establishment of cities, landlords started to grant privileges to settlements around the year A.D. 1000. The total package of these privileges are the city rights. City rights turned settlements into interesting locations for merchants. This resulted in economic growth of the cities. The liegelord took profit from this economic growth by means of taxes. City rights were also often granted in exchange for additional support to the city's liege. This support often consisted of additional taxes, sorely needed for the costly medieval wars. Originally, the liegelord remained in charge of the composition of local government. However, as cities accumulated privileges, and the power of cities grew, several cities managed to acquire a reasonable amount of autonomy over the years (especially after the privilege to construct and defend city walls was granted). Some cities even managed to develop into city-states. The growing economical and military power concentrating in the cities lead to a very powerful class of well-to-do merchants and traders.

Common City rights

Privileges
  • City walls (the right to erect a defence wall around an inhabited area)
  • Market right (the right to hold a market and receive income from the markets)
  • Storage right (the right to store and exclusively trade particular goods, often only granted to a few cities)
  • Toll right (the right to charge toll)
  • Mint right (the right to mint city coinage)
Freedoms
  • Personal freedom (citizens had a relative degree of personal freedom in comparison to citizens of rural areas: they were not subject to the liegelord and had freedom of mobility) — Hence the old saying Stadslucht maakt vrij ('City air makes free').
Governance
  • City governance (Well-to-do citizens could sometimes elect local government officials)
  • Judiciary and law making (Within its boundaries the city could have a large degree of autonomy)
  • Taxation (the right to levy taxes)


Rights granted to the cities of present-day Belgium

One of the last towns that became a city in Belgium was Genkmarker.

Rights granted to the cities of present-day's Luxembourg

Modern era

Note several of the following were first granted city rights during the medieval period.


Rights granted to the cities of the present-day's Netherlands

The first community in the Netherlandsmarker to receive city rights was Deventermarker in 956. It can be argued that some cities have older rights such as Nijmegenmarker that may already have received city rights during the Roman Empire. Another case is Voorburgmarker, which is built on the site of the Roman settlement Forum Hadriani and was granted city rights in about 151. Forum Hadriani was abandoned however in the late third century, thus the current settlement is not considered an uninterrupted continuation of the Roman city. With the end of the Middle Ages, the number of city rights granted dropped dramatically. The strong role of merchants and traders allowed the Netherlands to become the first modern republic in the 16th century. When several important settlements (predominantly the Haguemarker) wanted the right to call themselves cities, rather than towns, the old custom knew a short-lived Romantic revival in the early 19th century. The last community in the Netherlands to receive city rights was Delfshavenmarker in 1825.

End of city rights

The institution of city rights came gradually to its end with the development and centralization of a national government. In the Netherlands the last city to receive real city rights (as defined above) was Willemstad in 1586. During the Dutch Republic period, only Blokzijlmarker gained city rights (in 1672). After the Batavian revolution in 1795, municipalities were styled after the French model and city rights were abolished by law. Although partially restored after 1813, cities would not fully regain the authorities they previously had: law making and judiciary had become part of the state. After the Constitution of 1848 and the Municipal Law of 1851, the difference between cities, towns, and villages was permanently erased.

The city rights which were granted at the beginning of the 19th century (the last one to Delfshavenmarker in 1825) cannot be compared to the rights bestowed in the Middle Ages and are only symbolic in nature. Cities such as Den Haagmarker and Assenmarker fall into this category which received their rights during the French period.

Granting of city rights, chronologically



See also



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